McDonnell: “We must face up to the reality that the Agreement has run out of road”

Today’s Belfast Telegraph editorial notes what it believes are the choices facing the new SDLP leader:

There are a number of choices facing Dr McDonnell. Does he take on Sinn Fein directly in the Assembly, trying to point up that party’s failings in dealing with the current economic crisis and arguing that Sinn Fein’s cosy relationship with the DUP is just an exercise of political muscle with little end result?

Will he take the party into opposition at Stormont? That is not really in the ethos of the party which – even as a minority party behind unionism – was more used to setting the agenda and creating new political processes. But if he was to work more closely with Alliance and the Ulster Unionists and create innovative policies he could reenergise the party and give it a sense of direction. There are some who might argue that he is not the man for innovation, but we shall see.

Or does he spend more time building up the SDLP at ground level. There is no doubt that the party’s organisation lags far behind that of Sinn Fein and there are certain nationalist areas of the province where it has only minimal presence and minimal votes. Voters love winners and want to feel that their ballot counts for something and can make a real difference.

In fact, it may be that he seeks to move ahead on all of these fronts. First and foremost I suspect, to be accidentally perverse, will come the third option.

What McDonnell’s election provides for is a shift away from the party’s post Belfast Agreement defence rhetoric, not least his suggestion that the party had become a bit hypnotised by its by tedious and incomprehensible role as defender of the BA:

I would like to smash the myth that Sinn Fein and the DUP are somehow invincible. They’re not – they are just a bit better than us at getting votes.

But above all I want to smash through the limits to our own political vision. We put so much into the Good Friday Agreement that we became hypnotised by it. We must now face up to the reality that the Agreement has run out of road.

I don’t interpret that, necessarily, as a threat to go into opposition. Despite its widespread advocacy, there seems little appetite for what would likely be interpreted by the public (ie the voters) as ‘giving up work’ than actually providing a useful function.

But it would not take much shift to turn a party with just one minister on board into an effective resistance rather than a opposition as such, but only if the mentality, the arguments and, most importantly, a much tighter connection to the voter base is in place.

One thing is clear: this war for votes of McDonnell’s can only be fought on an asymmetrical basis.

He has no big artillery, or tanks (with the possible exception of himself) to deploy; and no vast corporate organisation to call upon to ‘volunteer’ (SF has a turnover of about £1 million). His first aim should be, as Alistair Campbell once counseled the Tories under IDS, to cause as much trouble behind enemy lines as possible.

The SDLP has been ‘think tank’ mode for a long time so the change he’s after won’t happen overnight. But unlike Margaret Ritchie he has three and a half years before the next election in which to prepare his party for the electoral battle for its life.

Any administration that takes seven months to produce a straightforward Programme for Government, (with no legislation passed in the first term back after the summer), and in which the deputy First Minister feels he can take a five week sabbatical to go and fight and unsuccessful campaign in another territory is is one that’s ripe for disruption.